Don't slight space flight

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Half a century ago, humans decided to leave this planet. On April 12, 1961, 87,000 pounds of thrust forced Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin out of our atmosphere and into low earth orbit. He ended up being the first of many to travel to outer space. He was an explorer, like Christopher Columbus and Leif Eriksson before him. And like all great explorers, he had a good method of transportation to get him to uncharted territory. These days, though, we seem to be losing ours.

Recently, outrage has been growing in Houston over the final resting place of the space shuttle Endeavor.

Many, including Houston’s Bring the Shuttle Home campaign, think that at least one shuttle should find its way “home” to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, despite the fact that all of the shuttles were built by Rockwell International in California. But as the bidding for the decommissioned shuttles began a year and a half ago, big organizations waged war against each other, and Houston came up short. Some may think it a shame, but due to  weak politicking or poor bidding, Houston won’t be getting an orbiter of its own.

Really, though,  none of that matters. Instead of a Bring the Shuttle Home campaign, there should be a Keep the Shuttles in Space campaign. These great mammoths of technology, which
once sent humans literally out of this world, have been reduced to nothing more than museum installations and interstellar memories. Terrence Wilcutt, deputy director of the Johnson Space Center and former shuttle commander, says that it was a mistake to decommission the shuttles altogether. Wilcutt believes that we shouldn’t have to hitch a ride on Russian rockets, nor should we be at the mercy of private enterprises.  But as the last of the orbiters are decommissioned, we’re more focused on the fight over who gets the shuttles-turned-museum-exhibits, rather than their unjust demise.

For some time now, our space program’s budget has been declining. These days, the government would rather spend $70 billion on F-22 fighter aircrafts that don’t fly very often while the entirety of NASA operates on a yearly budget of only $17 billion. It’s OK, though; we’ve got the next Cold War arms race in the bag.

The government’s waning interest in space may stem from that of the American people. In the 1960s, families sat around black-and-white TVs watching shuttle launches, which were exciting and patriotic at the same time. All of America watched as Neil Armstrong took his first steps onto the moon. But now the space race is over. We didn’t win or lose — we moved on.

Today, the general public doesn’t really care about the shuttle program or the International Space Station.  I think it’s because they don’t know what the space program has done for them. Even though the information is readily available, few know about the specialized cancer research on the International Space Station or NASA’s pioneering work on artificial limbs and hearing implants. Perhaps more important to students: Without the space program, we wouldn’t have the microchips that make smartphones and laptops possible. The space program
stimulated innovation like nothing before, and if we let it, it could continue to do so.

It’s important not to forget about our space program. International competition and the Cold War notwithstanding, it did us a lot of good. Going to space defined an era. It is part of who we are as Americans, and we shouldn’t let it slip away.

Simmons is an aerospace engineering junior from Austin.